iPhone 13 review: Apple delivers a delightful upgrade
The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Mini aren't radically different, but that's part of the charm.
Updated Nov. 19, 2021 10:31 a.m. PT
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Patrick HollandManaging Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
Editor's note, Nov. 19: The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini have better battery life, better cameras and a newer processor than last year's iPhone 12 and 12 Mini. Overall both the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini are excellent phones for most people, which is why we've given them a CNET Editors' Choice Award. Our original review, first published in September, follows.
The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini received a number of significant upgrades including new cameras, a bigger battery, more storage and a brighter screen. The iPhone 13 is a delightful upgrade to last year's already wonderful iPhone 12 family. Some will be disappointed because it's not radically different from previous models, but that's actually part of the charm. Familiarity has been one of the keys to Apple's success with the iPhone, and the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini are those same reliable friends that seemingly never change.
The iPhone 13 starts at $829 (£779, AU$1,349) and the 13 Mini at $729 (£679, AU$1,199). That's for the base model, which comes with 128GB of storage. If you buy and activate your phone on a carrier plan, that price drops by $30, and that's before adding on the impressive deals from carriers.
For all intents and purposes Apple launched two phones in 2021: The iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 Pro. If you want a small version of the iPhone 13, get an iPhone 13 Mini. If you need an iPhone 13 Pro with a bigger screen and battery, get the 13 Pro Max. I spent five days testing all four phones and decided to share my results in two reviews. This one covers the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini; I wrote a separate one on the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max. You can also compare all four iPhone 13 models here.
Last year's iPhone 12 is still around at a lower price. If you're upgrading from an iPhone 11 or older, remember the iPhone 12 with 128GB of storage is only $50 less than the iPhone 13. That means it's easy to climb that upgrade ladder from an iPhone 12 up to a 13. Apple's clever pricing aside, you definitely get more than $50 of improvements with the 13. I'm happy the iPhone Mini lived to see another year. If the iPhone 13 is understated, the 13 Mini just wants to be the shy kid in the corner of the sandbox. As a proud iPhone 12 Mini owner, I'm tempted to upgrade just to get the extra battery life. But whether you're due for your two-year (or more) upgrade or have been sitting on a much older phone, the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini are both solid choices.
The iPhone 13 keeps the flat-sided design, comes in 5 colors
The new phones have the same squared-edged design as the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini. They come in five colors: blue, starlight, Product red, midnight and pink. In certain lighting, the soft pink color can almost look white.
On the front of the iPhone 13 is a 6.1-inch display, and there's a 5.4-inch screen on the 13 Mini. Both are OLED panels just like the 12 and 12 Mini. The Pro models got an upgrade and added high refresh rates to their displays, but the 13 and 13 Mini got a noticeable increase in brightness.
Aside from the colors, there are two conspicuous design changes. A new camera bump houses the dual-rear cameras diagonally. It's funny how one change can clue people in. When I tested it, several people stopped to ask if this was the "new iPhone."
The other difference is that the notch is slimmer. It's still a notch and I still have a love-hate relationship with it aesthetically. But I'll take it being 20% smaller.
Other than that, the phones have a Ceramic Shield covering over the display, an IP68 rating for dust- and water-resistance means they can survive being submerged 6 meters (about 20 feet) for up to 30 minutes. The models I tested had no trouble surviving an unexpected drench from an afternoon summer rainstorm.
Technically both phones are heavier, but I didn't realize that until I read the specs sheet. If the extra 7 to 10 grams come from the bigger battery, I welcome the extra weight. I only had five days with the phones, but both the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini had no trouble making it through a day on a single charge. I own a 12 Mini and know the reality of the 3 p.m. recharge, but I don't experience that with the 13 Mini. On an average day of use, the iPhone 13 Mini makes it through a day and even outlasts last year's regular iPhone 12.
iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Mini: Check out the redesigned camera module and smaller notch
The wide-angle camera has a larger sensor with sensor-based stabilization. Apple says the cameras were arranged diagonally to make room for the bigger camera module. To give you some perspective, the main camera sensor on the iPhone 13 has the same sized pixels as the main camera on last year's iPhone 12 Pro Max, which at the time had the largest sensor on an iPhone. The ultrawide camera gets a new sensor that helps it gather more light. In use, these upgrades don't make drastic differences, but I definitely noticed the improvements. There's less image noise in photos I take in medium lighting. And the ultrawide is better at taking photos in dim lighting. On the front, the selfie camera is good but not great, especially compared to the rear cameras.
Take a look at some of my favorite photos I took with the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini in the gallery below.
iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Mini camera testing: See how Apple's new phones take photos
One of the most-hyped new camera features is Cinematic mode. It's kind of like Portrait mode for video, but while Portrait mode only gives the background an artistic out-of-focus blur, Cinematic mode can focus from one subject to another. This leaves either the background or foreground out-of-focus. The effect is dramatic and nearly everyone I showed a Cinematic video to was awestruck.
Cinematic mode uses the two cameras on the back stereoscopically to capture 1080p video at 30 frames per second. The iPhone can choose who to focus on and when to change focus to someone else, but you can also change the focus during the recording. Best of all, after you record a video, you can go back and change who's in focus, when to shift focus from one person to another and adjust the aperture to increase or decrease the depth of field.
The results are nice, and I imagine after using it enough you'll have your own sense of what's possible. But there are a few limits to be aware of. First, you can't use Cinematic mode when it's dark. You'll be greeted with a message prompting you to turn on your flash.
Next, editing a Cinematic video is straightforward enough, but the controls for the keyframes where you change focus are small. You can long-press to expand the timeline, but it shrinks back as soon as you let go, making it impossible to keep a zoomed-in view of those tiny focus keyframes.
Last, don't let the name fool you. Cinematic mode is more of a novelty than a professional tool. It's the equivalent of when Portrait mode first debuted on the iPhone 7 Plus: fun to try but far from ready for prime time. I look forward to seeing Cinematic mode improve in future iPhone models. I will likely stick to using the default Video mode for my recording needs, especially for important moments.
The iPhone 13 lets you personalize how it captures photos
Another nice addition is Photographic Styles, which changes the way your camera develops photos to suit your preference. There are four Photographic Styles: Vibrant, Rich Contrast, Warm and Cool. These styles aren't filters added after the fact. You choose which one you like, and your iPhone incorporates that style into its workflow for developing a photo.
For example, if you usually edit your photos to add more contrast after you take them, you can set the Camera app to Rich Contrast. Your phone won't just amp up the contrast across the entire photo, it analyzes your subject and applies the style selectively. If you use the Warm Photographic Style, it won't make your subject's skin orange. But it will add warm tones to other parts of the photo as soon as you press the shutter button.
What's fascinating is you can dial in the amount of tone and warmth for each style to suit your preference. Also, if you don't want to use any of these styles, you can leave your camera set to standard.
iPhone 13 has an A15 Bionic chip
Computing all this camera magic and everything else you do on the iPhone 13 is the A15 Bionic chip. In my time it handled everything from gaming, video and photo edits, FaceTime calls and AR apps well. One particular detail is that the A15 chip on the 13 and 13 Mini has a four-core GPU while the A15 on the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max has a five-core GPU. In use, I couldn't discern the difference. But in benchmark tests you can. The four phones had an identical GeekBench 5 score, but the Pro models had a higher score in the gaming performance test 3D Mark.
The new iPhones run iOS 15, which in my time worked well. iOS 15 isn't a drastic overhaul and feels like a continuation of iOS 14. It's not defined by a couple of giant flashy features. Instead, iOS 15 is made up of hundreds of small and medium additions that add up to something more significant. From more ways to personalize your Memoji to the larger visual improvements in Maps, iOS 15 is a significant improvement for your phone.
Better battery life than the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini
Both the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini last longer on a charge than the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini. In fact, the iPhone 13 Mini consistently lasted longer than the regular iPhone 12. If the shorter battery life on the iPhone 12 Mini prevented you from buying it, you should definitely consider the iPhone 13 Mini. In CNET's battery test, where I played a looped video on Airplane mode with the screen at half brightness, the iPhone 13 Mini lasted 18 hours, 19 minutes, and the iPhone 13 lasted 21 hours, 52 minutes. Compare that to the iPhone 12 Mini, which lasted 14 hours, 48 minutes, and the iPhone 12, which lasted 17 hours, 14 minutes. In daily use, the iPhone 13 Mini typically made it a day on a single charge. If I used it heavily, like taking lots of photos and recording a bunch of videos, it needed to be topped off by late-afternoon. Even on days I used it heavily, the iPhone 13 had no problem making it to the end of the day on a single charge.
If you want a deeper dive into iOS 15 and my experience with features like Focus mode, watch my run-down of iOS 15's best features, below.
It's been a good start with both phones, but I have more in-depth testing to do of their durability, and comparing their cameras against other phones. The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini are reliable phones that most people should be more than happy to use for the next few years.